WASHINGTON -- A preventive war worked out so well in Iraq that Washington last week launched another. The new preventive war -- the government responding forcefully against a postulated future threat -- has been declared on behalf of polar bears, the first species whose supposed jeopardy has been ascribed to global warming.
The Interior Department, bound by the Endangered Species Act, has declared polar bears a "threatened" species because they might be endangered "in the foreseeable future," meaning 45 years. (Note: 45 years ago, the now-long-forgotten global cooling menace of 35 years ago was not yet foreseen.) The bears will be threatened if the current episode of warming, if there really is one, is, unlike all the previous episodes, irreversible, and if it intensifies, and if it continues to melt sea ice vital to the bears, and if the bears, unlike in many previous warming episodes, cannot adapt.
Because of restrictions on hunting, polar bears might be more numerous today than ever and might be twice as numerous as they were three decades ago -- when the media were fanning frenzy about global cooling. (Science magazine, March 1975, reported "the approach of a full-blown 10,000-year ice age.") As Nigel Lawson, a former British Cabinet member, writes in his new book "An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming":
"Over the past two-and-a-half-million years, a period during which the planet's climate fluctuated substantially, remarkably few of the earth's millions of plant and animal species became extinct. This applies not least, incidentally, to polar bears, which have been around for millennia, during which there is ample evidence that polar temperatures have varied considerably."
But Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne says the "threatened" label is mandatory because sea ice has been melting and computer models postulate future melting caused by human activity. So, now that human activity is assumed to be the primary cause, or even a measurable cause, of warming, the decision to classify the bears as threatened has become a mighty lever.
Now that polar bears are wards of the government, and now that it is a legal doctrine that humans are responsible for global warming, the Endangered Species Act has acquired unlimited application. Anything that can be said to increase global warming can -- must -- be said to threaten bears already designated as threatened.